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Material Affinities

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Organizer: Dominic Mastroianni

Co-Organizer: Michele Navakas

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In this seminar we propose to explore the affinities of nineteenth-century American writers for specific natural materials, while considering the stakes and goals of our own affinities for their writings on those materials. To that end, we seek to bring together 12 scholars working on projects with a material focus and interested in collectively exploring three shared questions: How do nineteenth-century writers encourage people to perceive, encounter, or experience the natural world? What ethical or political effects could these relationships with nature encourage? And what do we as scholars hope to gain from examining and writing about nineteenth-century material affinities in the twenty-first century?

Additional questions of interest include the following:



What are literary scholars uniquely positioned to reveal about the historical past by pursuing projects with a material focus?


Do we necessarily assume a particular relationship between past, present, and future when we focus on the natural world?


Does a focus on matter necessarily attune us to physical experience, or commit us to an empiricist epistemology?


How does description function in nineteenth-century writing about natural materials? To what extent are descriptions of particular materials thought to derive value or intelligibility from their connection to a theory of nature? What is the relation between describing something and speculating about it?


What happens in encounters with materials whose significance, or identity, is not entirely clear?


How do nineteenth-century writers imagine material beings and processes that are not directly perceptible?


How do nineteenth-century writers conceive of the relation between materials and bodies?


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